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A Dante Of Our Time

Primo Levi and Auschwitz

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Risa B. Sodi

This original and timely volume details the influence of Dante's Inferno on Primo Levi's classic Holocaust narrative, Se questo è uomo, and his last book of essays, I sommersi e i salvatie. Such key concepts as memory, justice, and the realm of the neutral sinners - «la zona grigia» for Levi - are given particular emphasis. Three questions form the backbone of the book: Can memory be overcome? Where is justice for the Holocaust survivor? and, Is there a middle ground between victim and oppressors, and how does Levi define it? Ample use of interviews with the author reveal how Levi relates these three questions to such contemporary figures as Sigmund Freud, Franz Stangl, Rudolf Höss, Jean Améry, Liliana Cavani, and Kurt Waldheim.

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1. Al di qua del bene e del male: Justice in Dante's Inferno and in Primo Levi's First and Last Books 5

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CHAPTER I AL Dl QUA DEL BENE E DEL MALE: JUSTICE IN DANTE'S INFERNO AND IN PRIMO LEVI'S FIRST AND LAST BOOKS Alcune psicologi moderni pensano che il senso della gius- tizia e particolarmente intenso nei perseguitati. Essi riven- dicano ardentamente giustizia, e quanto piii ne sono privi, tanto piii si fanno un 'idea elevata, sia del suo valore che dei suoi benefici. Checcbe ne sia del carattere generate di tale teoria, essa sembra adattarsi perfettamente a Dante e alia sua opera. 1 This judgment applies just as "perfectly" to Primo Levi as to Dante. Justice is often a central issue in accounts of Auschwitz, just as it is usual- ly invoked whenever there is human suffering. Primo Levi, however, wit- nessed and survived some of the greatest suffering of our time, and yet he is strangely unforthcoming on the subject of justice. True, his books are peppered with references to justice: as it was perverted in the death camps, as it eludes their survivors, as it was thwarted by many war criminals. And yet, he stops just short of either enunciating a call for justice or of develop- ing his own systematic line of thought. Levi repeatedly refrains from direct judgment of his former oppressors, often absolving those "grey 6 Justice in Dante and Levi zoners" who were coerced into abetting the Final Solution, and demurs on the issue of justice when analyzing such closely allied elements as the "memory of offense" or "useless" and "useful" violence. At the...

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